sixty potential first sentences

IMG_2148Yesterday a flash fiction story of mine, Watching, was published in an online magazine called Six Sentences. Trying to tell a story in six sentences is enlightening because the writing process is compressed, making it easy to see what you’re doing and why.

My 6-sentence story began its life two years ago.

In The Story Behind the Story, Stephen Dobyns writes that he asked Raymond Carver how he wrote a particular story. “He [Carver] said the first sentence had come into his mind and he just followed it.” Dobyns explains that he usually outlines his novels and knows generally what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. So Dobyns was intrigued by Carver’s method of letting the writing itself be “a process of discovery.”

Shortly thereafter, Dobyns, in one sitting, wrote “sixty potential first sentences.”

“[I] went through them again, forcing each into a paragraph. Some went nowhere. Still, after two more hours I had forty paragraphs.”

He extended each paragraph to one page, ending up with about 35 one-page beginnings.

“After about a month, I had twenty stories….I worked on the stories for six or seven years…and ended with fifteen, which appeared in my book Eating Naked.”

IMG_2168Two years ago, a friend and I decided to write a story a week for ten weeks, acknowledging that we would only be producing rough drafts. Life intervened for her, but I completed the exercise, which I began by trying to generate as many first sentences as I could, a la Dobyns. One of those attempts, which turned itself into 3 sentences, but did not make it any further, was the beginning of “Watching.”

My little six-sentence story took 16 drafts. By the 2nd draft, most of the details and all but one of the characters were present. In the 8th draft, I discovered what the story was about and then moved the sentence about the mother from the middle of the story to the end. In the 11th draft, the title appeared, giving a nod to the narrator as well as to what the characters were either doing or avoiding. The rest of the drafts involved figuring out the mother’s story, deleting unnecessary details and words, and changing repetitive words.In the 15th draft, I added the phrase, “hung her head ” to theIMG_2169 mother to link the way she felt to the way her son felt.

Still, when I saw it in print yesterday, I wanted to revise again. I wasn’t happy with the word actually. And we’re talking six sentences!

By the way, of those ten stories, three I haven’t done anything with yet, three I’m actively working on, and four are finished. Of those four, one became the marry tales posted on this blog, the doors between and the kitten; one I’m currently sending out, one will be published in the fall, and one is already published, “Frosting.”

10 thoughts on “sixty potential first sentences

  1. Thanks for directing us to this site and to your story. I read Watching and am amazed at your ability to tell a story in only six sentences. I love how the reader is given just enough information to be able to extrapolate and fill in the blanks. This is an exercise all writers should have on their to-do-list.

    Wonderful post!


  2. Nice to hear from you, Calliopespen! I do think Six Sentences is a great site. I’ve enjoyed seeing what writers can do with only 6 sentences–some using a lot of words and some very few.

    I was also encouraged by the process of writing this little story. Most of the moves I made as a writer were for a particular reason. So often when I’m revising, it feels completely random.


  3. Actually, I liked actually in your story and glad you didn’t edit it out.

    Your fuss over it reminds me of Garrison Keillor, who has an edit addiction. He edits even after the book hits the shelves. Going to his local bookstore with a pen in hand and lining through words and sentences.


  4. Thanks for reading, Tricia, and for liking actually. I had never heard that story about Garrison Keillor. I would love to have one of those books he edited after it was published. At least here I restrained myself from emailing the editor to ask him to make changes. : )


  5. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into your revision process. Did you actually (ahem) keep count?

    So far, I don’t feel I’m successful writing in the short form, but I think I’ll work with this six-sentence concept.


  6. Linda, I’m amazed at what a great writing exercise this turned out to be. And I, ahem, did not keep count as I went. I just kept my rejects in a pile. After I was “done,” I went back to study my process, which I was unaware of as I was working.


  7. i loev the process you describe, Cynthia! You bring to mind the anthology, Double Lives
    Writing and Motherhood.
    Many of the woman describe a similar process.

    Is there anything of yours that has made it to print that you are 100% satisfied with?
    I do not think that would ever be the case with me.


  8. Jennifer, I’m not familiar with that book. I’ll check it out.

    And yes, unless I’ve forgotten, I am satisfied with my other published stories and articles. Maybe it’s just that with 6 sentences, it’s all right there staring at you without having to turn a page or anything.

    BTW, last night, as I was trying to go to sleep, I thought, wonder if I should have used disappear into instead of go to in the last sentence…


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